When the NFL lockout ended and the wild week of free agency began, ESPN hit its stride. Before that, the network bumped its way into stories and stumbled and fumbled trying to connect a disinterested audience with a complicated story.
This is how it goes in 24-hour television. This is how it goes in an era of social media and digital delivery. This is how it goes when journalists from one specialty move outside their comfort zone.
It’s not that ESPN did a worse job than other newsrooms covering the NFL labor dispute. To be fair, many newspapers and magazines floundered as well. It’s more that the story was a bad TV story, an awkward fit for ESPN’s talents and a difficult narrative to consume.
Covering a labor dispute is like covering a divorce. And if you’ve ever gone through a divorce or watched one close up, you know that each step is tedious and excruciating. While it’s compelling to the people directly involved in the dispute, the only question anyone else really cares about -- even those who love the two parties in conflict – is, when will this be over so everyone can get on with life?
ESPN knew this from the get-go. At ESPN.com, lockout stories got underwhelming numbers of clicks. TV ratings during the dispute were “soft” as well.
“Our viewers didn’t want to get overloaded with the details of the negotiations. No minutiae. They just wanted to know when it was going to end,” said Seth Markman, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer in charge of NFL, during a phone interview this week.
Even diehard fans struggled to pay attention. We have a couple dozen sports journalism insiders we turn to for advice. To a person, when we asked them their views on lockout coverage, they told us the story itself was so boring, they hardly paid attention.
But ESPN has a lot of resources dedicated to the NFL. And they were producing a lot of information. In addition to the broadcast team of NFL analysts Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Sal Paolantonio and John Clayton, the network hired Andrew Brandt, a former NFL team executive, to augment ESPN’s business knowledge. On top of that, ESPN.com has another dozen bloggers and columnists dedicated to the NFL.
Then there’s the hole: 24 hours of airtime on the main channel and an endless amount of space on the Web. What was the reporting strategy?
“We flood the zone with just about everything. When you have as many reporters and 24/7 outlets as we have, right or wrong, fair or foul, that’s the nature of what we do,” said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com. “Clearly, this was a different story to attack. It was esoteric and slow-moving. But that’s the lifeblood of what we do.”
On top of that, sports reporters and analysts are often out of their comfort zone in labor negotiations. That means it was a struggle to know what was news, and what wasn’t. We heard that from sports reporters everywhere, not just those at ESPN. Factor in the social media maelstrom of athletes tweeting their thoughts, and you get a formula for confusion.
The uncertainty was painfully apparent as the owners agreed internally on a settlement and sent a proposal to the players, who decided to ask for more information rather than vote immediately. Journalists everywhere, not just at ESPN, flailed as they tried to describe what was happening.
“We were getting sources saying the players just have to vote,” Markman said. “These were good sources, good reporters.”
As a result, predictions were made -- “soon” “almost over” “24 hours” -- that came and went. Precise language was elusive as well. For example, many reporters insisted on calling the settlement a CBA -- collective bargaining agreement -- when in fact that term only applies to a union negotiation. The players decertified their union and wouldn’t have a CBA until recertification.
If he could do it over, Markman said he would be more cautious about putting a timeline on anything. It’s not just that the sources were wrong; some information, such as when the players would vote, was simply unknowable.
What could ESPN do better, especially as it covers the current NBA labor dispute, which makes the NFL conflict look simple?
Resist the urge to report minute-by-minute, or even the hour-by-hour updates. Minimize live banter in favor of a prepared package that gives an overview of the issue and a roundup of latest developments. Spend those vast resources on context. New information often seems important, simply because it is new. But that same nugget, viewed over time, is often meaningless. Giving the audience an authoritative report once a day may be a better way to serve fans.
Once the lockout ended, ESPN picked up with what the network does well -- covering football. So far, that has meant wall-to-wall reports on which free agents were going where, and which players were being traded. Schefter in particular has broken several big post-lockout stories.
“I’d so much rather be doing this,” Markman said of the transaction frenzy.
“This” is covering football, and issues that affect the way the game is played, as opposed to labor negotiations.
Now that NFL fans are getting what they want -- a football season -- it’s likely that most of the confusion over the lockout coverage will fade. Players will play, fans will watch, and ESPN will tell a more compelling football story.